Karl-Anthony Towns: Is the Timberwolves big truly elite?
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Karl-Anthony Towns

Is Karl-Anthony Towns truly elite?

On Tuesday, ESPN’s Nick Fridell appeared on The Jump and said that there are those around the NBA who are beginning to believe that Minnesota Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is not elite.

That is an awfully peculiar sentiment for a guy who is averaging 26.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor and 41.2 percent from three-point range, but nevertheless, here we are.

And you know what? It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Yes, Karl-Anthony Towns puts up monster numbers. He is a walking double-double. He is one of the most efficient scorers we have ever seen. But he is also an atrocious defender and has made the playoffs just once in his career.

To give you an idea of just how bad Towns has been defensively this season, the Timberwolves are 11.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Towns is on the bench.

That is insane.

Now, on the flip side, they are an unreal 15 points per 100 possessions better offensively when he is on the floor, but no one is denying Towns’ offensive impact.

This is about his defense and it’s about his leadership.

Look: Minnesota has been horrendous ever since it traded Kevin Garnett during the summer of 2007, so the franchise’s ineptitude is not just limited to Towns. Whether it was Kevin Love or Ricky Rubio or Andrew Wiggins or Towns, the Wolves have been bad regardless of who has been on their roster, which speaks to how poor of a job management has done.

But still, Towns is supposed to be a franchise player. He is supposed to be the guy who lifts the team. Let’s remember that Garnett toiled away in Minnesota for 12 years but was still dragging the club to playoff appearances and even a trip to the Western Conference Finals with truly paltry rosters, most of which were worse than what Towns has had over the course of his first five NBA seasons.

The one time Towns made the playoffs? That happened in 2018, when Jimmy Butler was a member of the team. Of course, the Timberwolves were bounced in the first round, and Towns averaged just 15.2 points per game in the process.

To be fair, that was only Towns’ third season, but perhaps Butler was right in his assessment of the University of Kentucky product? After all, Minnesota has plummeted ever since trading Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers in November 2018, and Towns’ defensive shortcomings have been a big reason why.

It’s great for the modern big man to be able to spread the floor and do basically anything offensively, but in order to be one of the best all-around bigs in the game, he also has to be able to defend at least adequately.

Karl-Anthony Towns has not shown he can do that.

I’m not sure if it’s an effort problem or that he just genuinely is not a good defender, but whatever the case may be, it’s a problem, and it’s severely stunting the Wolves.

Minnesota handed Towns a massive $190 million contract extension prior to the start of the 2018-19 campaign, and you know the saying: to whom much is given, much is required.

Again, pinning the Timberwolves’ misfortunes solely on Towns is silly. They were a bad franchise before he arrived and they remain a bad franchise now. But when you land that type of deal, you are expected to elevate your team, and Towns has not done that. As a matter of fact, he has gone far enough to express his unhappiness, which didn’t exactly help matters.

Minnesota tried to assuage Towns’ doubts about the future by acquiring his close friend D’Angelo Russell at the trade deadline, and while the idea of a Towns-Russell pairing sounds exciting, is it really going to help the Wolves win games?

There is a reason why Russell is now on his fourth team in five years, and he suffers from the same type of defensive deficiencies that Towns does. You don’t notice it nearly as much, because Russell is a guard, but the issues are there.

Now, the Timberwolves’ cap space is being absorbed by a couple of guys who don’t play much defense whatsoever. Yes, I know they basically just swapped Wiggins with Russell, which is an upgrade (I think), but this is still not the place you want to be if you want to advance as an NBA franchise.

I’m not doubting that Minnesota can win with Towns. It can. He is only 24 years old, and he is an offensive stud. We get that. But in order to start making some serious runs with Towns as the centerpiece, the Timberwolves need to accommodate him with the right pieces, meaning guys who can defend (so not Russell) and guys who will hold him accountable (like Butler).

Karl-Anthony Towns is a terrific player and an amazing talent, but the concerns about his standing in the NBA in terms of just how good he really is may be rooted in some truth.